How to engage research supervisors:
Who can be a research supervisor? The definition of a research supervisor varies widely. They are typically Clinician Scientists, Clinicians or Scientists who do research that can range from an individual project per supervisor to a whole research program.
In addition, you may work with technicians, research assistants, research coordinators, residents, graduate students, clinical fellows, research fellows, and postdoctoral fellows to name a new. These individuals typically will be working with a faculty member, and they may be an invaluable resource for your learning.
Clinician researchers have been in your shoes at some point in their career, and have walked the same path that you are walking on. Supervisors understand what you are trying to achieve, as they did it themselves. So approach them with this understanding in mind, and that they will have a genuine interest in helping you achieve your goals. Someone must have helped them along the way to get this far in their distinguished careers.
It is important to note that while supervisors and their team members will give opportunities and support the learning of medical students, the outcomes depend on how the opportunity is used to achieve a good working relationship with the supervisor and their team, and complete a research placement.
You need to determine what area of research and scholarship you want to work in, how much time you can devote to research, and what you want to get out of it early on in the process. These are important early questions you need to answer, so that you can have the right start in your efforts.
Many supervisors do not expect students to have much research experience, but they are looking for a student who has a positive attitude about learning and growing through the learning process.
We recommend that you consider the following good practice guidelines about how to engage supervisors:
- Define the area of research you would like to pursue. This sometimes is helped if you do some reading in your areas of interest.
- Search on the University or research website for the Medical School for supervisors who are working on your area of interest. Visit the latter regularly, and check the weekly newsletter, as opportunities will be advertised when they become available.
- Once you identify a supervisor or a group of supervisors you are interested in their work, email them or make an appointment to meet them (virtual is fine, but ideally in person) with their secretary to discuss your research involvement.
In the e-mail, let them know who you are, and what part of their work that you came across that seemed interesting to you. Make sure you let them know why are you interested in their area of research. Explain your previous research experience if you have done research in the past, and give them a short summary of your research skills. Attach an up to date CV to your e-mail. Thank them for considering your application.
- Know the Principal Investigator (PI) and the research group’s publications, as this is going to be in your area of research and it is important that you familiarize yourself with them. In fact, you should do this before you e-mail them and definitely before your first meeting, so that you may already identify a potential project before you meet with them, and you can discuss your potential involvement.
- You will be typically invited to a meeting, or the supervisor may refer you to one of their graduate students or other tem members. This is even better, as you can get a trainee to give you a ‘tour’ of the supervisor’s research program.
Importantly, you can ask trainees about the supervisor’s track record of supervision, and see if students before you have been productive under their supervision. Ask questions about the lab environment, as tis will help you decide if this particular opportunity is for you.
- Do not despair if you do not hear back from the supervisor. There are many reasons that supervisors do not respond, and the key is perseverance. If a supervisor does not respond, give them 1-2 weeks, and e-mail them again. State that you did contact them recently and you were following up again to see if there are opportunities within their research group, as you are still interested in their area of research.
- Discuss your goals at the beginning of the relationship (e.g. abstract/poster, publication, time commitment). Sometimes, the supervisor needs to know how much you can contribute before making a decision about your future involvement. In addition, you need to find out if this project is what you want to commit to.
So do not be adamant about finalizing the output, but ask the question and set your goals so that they can think about you through this lens.
Please note that if you are looking to publish a paper, this will require some time commitment, and not all medical student research work translate to a published paper. However, there are many examples of students publishing papers, and this is an excellent addition to your CV that will likely be viewed positivity in your applications for future training applications. Very few people will take it against you if you end up having a paper!